The recently concluded ASEAN Ministerial Meeting at Phnom Penh, Cambodia (10-12 July 2012) has brought this regional grouping into the dock over three critical issues of (a) unity within ASEAN, (b) ASEAN’s leadership role in steering the Asia-Pacific region towards cooperation and integration, and (c) the group’s ability to withstand enormous pressure coming from the phenomenon of great power politics. The meeting failed to adopt a Joint-Communique in face of inability to generate consensus on whether or not to refer to China and the South China Sea dispute. While both the Philippines and Vietnam wanted to include China and South China Sea, Cambodia, the ASEAN Chair, insisted that no reference be made of these two words in the communiqué. The end result was that ASEAN failed to present a common position to negotiate with China and exposed its disunity and lack of coordination, resulting in vulnerability to external pressure.
The absence of a Joint Communiqué implies that the grouping no longer has a common agenda and therefore, is not presenting a united voice while engaging with its dialogue partners, who also happen to be important global or regional players. Generally, the communiqué lays down an agenda based on consensus, for the year-long deliberation within ASEAN culminating finally into the summit-level meeting held at the end of the year. Contents of the Joint Communiqué also find a place of prominence in the grouping’s deliberations with its dialogue partners. In other words, the agenda adopted here goes into all important declarations and statements adopted in different ASEAN-driven forums. Even though member-states have differed in the past over important issues, such as, human rights, South China Sea and Myanmar, they always managed to develop a compromise formula using the ASEAN way of ‘consultation, compromise and consensus.’ The Phnom Penh meeting has made a dent in ASEAN’s projection of its united image, the efficiency of its much-touted ASEAN way and its capacity to deal with its dialogue partners as a united regional voice.
Recent displays of discord and its failure in fulfilling ASEAN’s primary responsibility – steering the region towards unity and community-building - have drawn attention towards, perhaps, the second most pertinent question facing the group – is ASEAN capable of regulating its relations with the great powers or is it being marginalised by the great power politics? Can ASEAN continue to steer the cooperative and integrative agendas of the group and retain its leadership role in deciding the strategic discourse in the Asia-Pacific region or are its agenda and functioning being shaped by the evolving power politics in the region?
The pre-dominant view in the region is that the group has been successfully pursuing the policy of ‘enmeshment’ that has allowed ASEAN to entangle major global and regional powers into a web of cooperation, bind them to the regional rules of the game decided through ASEAN Way and steer the region towards peace and stability. The prevailing uncertainty in the region is being regulated in a cooperative manner placed by ASEAN’s integration and cooperation driven and the rule-based stable security architecture.
However, the Phnom Penh fiasco paints a contradictory picture. Though ASEAN had begun experiencing pressure from big-power rivalries during the last two years, the AMM meeting amply demonstrated ASEAN’s growing difficulties in dealing with issues involving the great powers. There is a growing trend towards potential polarisation. ASEAN, instead of regulating big-power relations in the region, is undergoing the process of ‘reverse enmeshment’ whereby the group has fallen victim to great power rivalries in the region and its cooperative agenda is gradually being replaced by the agenda of big powers.
Recent events also attest the increasing influence of China, which has been able to translate its enormous material power into influence in the region, especially over smaller powers in Southeast Asia. The Cambodian adamancy over not making reference to China and South China Sea and its insistence on not upsetting China, Phnom Penh’s principal benefactor, seems to have proved what statesmen and leaders of the region have been trying to ignore at their own peril. China has made deep inroads in Southeast Asia and it exercises considerable influence.
Meanwhile, the responses of the US-led West and ASEAN member states to the rise of China have been myopic and narrowly construed. The group relied more, at least, during the last few years on the US-led power-driven discourse rooted primarily in the containment of China. ASEAN has not been able to effectively follow its strategy of honest brokerage as well as enmeshment. The American gung-ho and assertion at the ASEAN forum under the Indonesian chairmanship may have also contributed to the partisan character of the country chairmanship, giving China an opportunity to use the Cambodian chairmanship to advance its agenda.
The US-led “balancing/pivot to Asia/re-balancing” may not be the effective strategy of dealing with the rise of China and Southeast Asia may prove to be the ultimate loser in the face of great power rivalry and resulting instability. The new-evolving Sino-US rivalry is, partly, also due to the failure of ASEAN in presenting an honest venue of cooperation and the group’s reverse enmeshment in the big-power rivalry. Though the Cambodian fiasco appears a logical conclusion of ASEAN’s increasing reverse enmeshment, it has also generated a sense of hope. Recent have thrown one important silver lining in this gloomy picture in the form of Indonesia’s role by providing leadership to keep the region together and continuing the ASEAN vision towards ‘one community one destiny,’ the ironic motto of the Phnom Penh summit.